Books finished: 2019

January 2, 2020

I’m going to try to institute a tradition here, where I write up some brief notes on the books I’ve read across the year. 2019 was dominated for me, intellectually speaking, by finishing up my Ph.D. thesis, and I’m not counting reading I did in that capacity – so the 2019 list is embarrassingly slight. Still – a tradition has to start somewhere. The big ‘real world’ event of 2019, for me, was moving to Aotearoa New Zealand – and this is another reason to start writing up books finished this year, because I expect a lot of my reading, going forward, to be focussed on getting to grips with Aotearoa history, politics, culture, language, etc. I’m very conscious of how imbalanced this year’s list is in a range of ways! But again, one makes a start somewhere, so:

Michael King – The Penguin History of New Zealand

This is the classic and best-selling modern one-volume history of New Zealand. Obviously I’m not in a position to evaluate it, in terms of history, but it seems good to me. Written from a mildly leftist, post-60s soft-hippy humanist ideological location, and from a Pākehā perspective which is nevertheless attentive to Māori history. Would recommend.

Janet Frame – Owls Do Cry

The first novel by one of the most prominent kiwi writers of fiction. This follows three members of a family from childhood to adulthood. The most autobiographical segment draws on Frame’s own experiences of psychiatric hospitalisation. In general the book didn’t do a huge amount for me – rightly or wrongly, I tend to find literary fiction’s mockery of characters who choose lives of would-be middle class respectability irritating.

Eric Olin Wright – Envisioning Real Utopias

I hope to write on this in an academic capacity at some point. Wright is a Marxist academic writing from a broadly New Left perspective. He is interested in saving the idea of emancipatory institutional transformation from both the disastrous failures and crimes of the twentieth century communist experiments, and ‘there is no alternative’ advocates of market capitalism. I think this is a good project – but Wright’s analytic framework is, in my view, not the best way to approach things. Hopefully I’ll flesh out a sympathetic critique at proper length at some point!

Raymond Miller – Democracy in New Zealand

An introductory textbook to New Zealand politics. Not very good on the settler-colonial context or legacy, but a useful introduction to how MMP functions in NZ and similar institutional issues.

Frederick Pitts and Matt Bolton – Corbynism: A Critical Approach

The most developed critique of Corbynism in the UK – a strange sort of synthesis of value-form Marxism and centrist talking points. Now that Corbyn is in the dustbin of history it’s probably not worth engaging with this too much – but it has some genuinely insightful stuff alongside a lot of terrible nonsense. It’s probably most notable for its articulation and dissemination of the idea that virtually any critical left discussion of ruling class agency amounts to ‘conspiracism’.

James Belich – The New Zealand Wars and the Victorian Interpretation of Racial Conflict

An (at the time) revisionist history of the major New Zealand colonial wars, which emphasises Māori military accomplishments, as against earlier propagandistically pro-British accounts. The core narrative has several parts: localised conflict over British expansionism, first in the north of the country around the Bay of Islands, then in the west of the North Island around Taranaki, with considerable Māori success in repelling British encroachment on Māori land. These conflicts led to greater mobilisation: on the Māori side, the formation of the Kīngitanga movement in central Waikato, as a way of pooling and centralising the military effort; on the British side, the mobilisation of a significant portion of the global British imperial military forces to destroy the Kīngitanga movement via an invasion of the Waikato. This invasion was ultimately largely successful; the last part of the book is focussed on ongoing quasi-guerilla movement resistance, which is a significant break from the organised military structures of earlier conflicts. The book was adapted into a TV series, but I found the book easier to follow than the show: the TV series focuses mostly on specific battles, whereas the book also discusses the strategic context, which is important for understanding what’s happening.

Michael King – Being Pakeha

An autobiographical reflection on Pākehā ethnic identity, and on the author’s journalistic and scholarly engagement with Māori communities. I read the 1985 version of the book – King updated the work in 1999, and I should try to look at the revised version as well. I probably need to think about this one more, in terms of substantive argument, but it’s a good, sympathetic read.

I’ve talked on this blog before about three different concepts of liberty: negative liberty, in the sense of action unconstrained by others’ coercion; capabilities liberty, in the sense of possessing the material and social resources and capacities required to make use of one’s negative liberty; and positive liberty, in the sense of active participation in self-governance.

When I was taught political philosophy at an undergraduate level, I remember a lot of focus on liberty versus equality, with the idea that there was some trade-off between the two. Obviously one can value equality for itself – but I tend now to think that equality, at least in the sense of material equality, is mostly a derivative political virtue. The main reason we should value material equality, and the kinds of redistributive politics associated with it, is because of those policies’ impact on capabilities and positive liberty. Material redistribution increases capabilities liberty by directly increasing people’s material and social capabilities – destitution is a form of unfreedom, and redistributive policy therefore increases liberty in at least this sense. Moreover, at the other end of the material wealth spectrum, extremely high levels of wealth can be transformed into political power and influence, so reducing wealth inequality also reduces the inequality in forms of political voice and influence associated with wealth – which is in turn likely to increase the positive liberty of the non-wealthy. So: the major virtues of this kind of egalitarian policy can be derived from principles of liberty – and I think this is often a better way to think about the normative or political or ethical warrant for such policies than to simply value equality itself.

Similarly, I remember a lot of attention in my introductory political philosophy classes focusing on principles of political legitimacy, which were more often than not as I recall understood in democratic terms: a governance system only has legitimacy if it enjoys the endorsement of the governed, in some sense. Here, again, the principle of ‘positive liberty’ seems very similar indeed – so it seems like a lot of issues in normative political theory can ‘drop out’ of these basic ideas of liberty.

OK. So – if we are thinking about principles of institution-design in these terms, we are thinking in terms of trade-offs. We need to think of trade-offs between individuals: is it worth reducing my negative liberty to engage in some action, if that action also constrains the negative liberty of others? We also need to think of trade-offs between categories of liberty: is it worth risking a loss of negative liberty to make a gain in capabilities liberty, or vice versa? These two forms of trade-off seem to capture a lot – obviously by no means all, but a lot – of the normative problems we confront when thinking about political and political-economic institution design.